- Associated Press - Monday, February 18, 2013

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — Afghan President Hamid Karzai on Monday officially banned the nation’s security forces from requesting international airstrikes during operations in residential areas.

The presidential order came two days after Mr. Karzai said he would issue the decree amid anger over a NATO airstrike requested by the national intelligence service that local officials said killed at least 10 civilians and four insurgents.

Critics have expressed concerns that the ban will hobble Afghan troops who rely heavily on air support to gain the upper hand in the fight against insurgents on the ground.

But the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, said he believes the American-led NATO coalition can operate effectively under the terms of the ban.

The death of civilians during military operations, particularly in airstrikes, has been among a major source of acrimony between Mr. Karzai’s government and foreign forces.

The presidential order was directed at the Defense Ministry, the Interior Ministry and the National Directorate of Security.

“During your operations, don’t call for air support from international forces during operations on residential areas,” the decree said. It did not provide more details.

Gen. Dunford said Mr. Karzai’s decision was in line with a tactical directive issued last year by Gen. Dunford’s predecessor, Marine Gen. John Allen, which was aimed at mitigating civilian casualties.

He said coalition forces believe they can conduct “effective operations within the president’s guidance.”

The U.S.-led military coalition said in June that it would limit airstrikes to a self-defense weapon of last resort for troops and would avoid hitting structures that could house civilians. That followed a bombardment that killed 18 civilians celebrating a wedding in eastern Logar province, which drew an apology from the American commander.

Tensions rose again earlier this month when the civilians were killed in the northeastern Kunar province.

The coalition, however, still can carry out airstrikes on its own accord.

“I believe the support we will provide to the Afghans is exactly consistent with the coalition’s tactical directive,” Gen. Dunford said.

Mr. Karzai’s decision, however, could hamper the Afghan force’s ability to fight the insurgency as it robs them of one of their most potent weapons. It also runs counter to Afghan requests for NATO to supply their security forces with aircraft capable of carrying out airstrikes. The Afghan military repeatedly has implored the United States for jet fighters, such as F-16s, and heavy weapons — including tanks and artillery.

“There are other ways we can support our Afghan partners other than air ordnance,” Gen. Dunford said without elaborating. He said the Afghan security forces will have to take Mr. Karzai’s decree into account when they make future operational plans.

The U.N. mission in Afghanistan said 83 civilians were killed and 46 wounded in aerial attacks by international military forces in the first half of 2012. That figure was down 23 percent from the similar period of 2011 — the deadliest year on record for civilians in the Afghan war. It said that two-thirds of the casualties last year were women and children and that insurgents were responsible for the overwhelming majority of the deaths.

Afghans currently lead about 90 percent of military operations nationwide and will fully take charge in the spring. However, they remain heavily dependent on the coalition for air support and medical evacuations from remote areas.

The coalition insists it takes special care to avoid civilian casualties in operations while noting many high-level Taliban commanders and other militants have been killed.


• Associated Press writers Amir Shah and Patrick Quinn contributed to this article.

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